Ballerina Keenan Kampa’s journey from ballet to acting
By Adrienne Warber
West Michigan ballet fans can now see ballerina Keenan Kampa dance on the big screen in movie theaters. Kampa, who taught classes at Grand Rapids Ballet’s “2014 Summer Intensive,” is starring in the dance movie, “High Strung.” The former Mariinsky Ballet dancer’s innovative dance instruction was one of the highlights of the “2014 Summer Intensive,” where students were inspired by her technique and her success story. She now has a chance to inspire a larger audience. The dance movie is both a love story and a coming of age story with a strong focus on ballet, hip hop and music. “High Strung,” which opened in movie theaters on April 8, is playing in movie theaters all over the country. Keenan Kampa talks to Examiner about her journey from dance to acting.
Dancer and Actress Keenan Kampa
Keenan Kampa is best known as the first American dancer to be hired by Russia’s renowned Mariinsky Ballet, the former Kirov Ballet, in St. Petersburg, Russia. When you see her dance, it is easy to see why Kampa made a bit of dance history by joining the dance company that was once home to some of the great Russian ballet dancers like Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky and Rudolf Nureyev. Kampa dances with the precision, grace and emotion often seen in Russian-trained ballerinas. She studied dance in Russia at the prestigious Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg before being recruited by Mariinsky Ballet. She danced with the company for five years before opportunities on an even larger stage appeared – the silver screen. She left the Mariinsky Ballet in 2014 to pursue her acting career.
Courage to Make a Hard Decision
It was hard for Kampa to make the decision to leave Mariinsky Ballet, and her decision was more than a simple career move. It was also about family. Kampa talks about leaving Mariinsky Ballet, “It was an excruciatingly hard decision to make. I went back and forth many times to make sure that I was making the right decision. I came home to have surgery on my hip. I kind of assumed that after the eight months of recovery, I would go back, and I was communicating with them. But then when the offer came to do the film, and the film actually helped me rehab and kept my spirits up and got me back on my feet. When it came time to go back to Russia, I felt sick to my stomach because I gotten so use to being home. I was with my family and there were so many exciting opportunities. The idea of going back to the life in Russia was something hard to stomach, even though I love the company and the ballet there. But at the end of the day, I had family members at home, and a grandfather who was not going to be around for much longer. I decided it was the right thing to stay. I think five years in Russia was enough. I’m very happy I stayed.”
A New-found Love of Acting
Kampa discovered her love of acting while still dancing with Mariinsky Ballet. She danced the role of Salome in a ballet production based on Oscar Wilde’s play, “La Salome.” The role required a high degree of acting skills in addition to dancing. It was the first time she made that type of connection with the audience. She describes the experience, “That was a really special performance that sticks out in my memory. The role of La Salome was a small ballet that was set on me and another girl. We went on tour with it to Italy. Salome was a very complex character, just because Salome herself is so many different things, but also something that I really related to. I had so much fun really digging deep with the character. I remember on stage she is killed, and it was such an emotional experience for me that I actually broke down in tears. At the end of the performance, I had a throbbing headache because I felt such a connection to the character. I remember going back to my hotel room and thinking that was amazing. I really felt like I stepped into the character’s shoes. I wanted more of it.”
Kampa explains what she enjoys most about acting, “For me, it’s amazing, how pulling from personal experiences, you can take any role and connect with it. I like the fact that the way you portray someone is never going to be the same as how some other person portrays the role. I think it’s really fun to step into someone else’s shoes and get lost in a character.”
Dancing on the Big Screen
Getting the lead role of Ruby Adams in the movie “High Strung,” so early in her acting career is another great success story for Keenan Kampa, and demonstrates her many talents for the performing arts. “High Strung” is both a dance movie and an inspirational love story about following dreams. In New York, a Midwestern ballet dancer, Ruby Adams (Keenan Kampa) and a British street musician, Johnnie Blackwell (Nicholas Galitzine), along with the help of a hip hop dance crew, must work together to help Ruby keep her scholarship at a prestigious dance school and prevent Johnnie from getting deported. While working on “High Strung,” Kampa got to work with well-known names in the film industry – director Michael Damian, producer Janeen Damian and movie star Jane Seymour. Kampa discusses working with the husband and wife production team Michael and Janeen Damian, “They were really great. I went into it, not really having experience. They led me along and offered great guidance. It was really fun. I applaud them. They had such a clear vision of what they wanted, and they weren’t going to settle for anything other than that.”
Kampa was thrilled to work with Emmy award-winning actress Jane Seymour. “She is so much fun. I was intimidated when I first heard she was coming on set. But after two minutes of being around her, she just melts your heart. She is such a lovely woman both inside and out. She is just full of life. Throughout filming, she has become a great person in my life for advice, for centering and for friendship. I look up to her greatly.”
Dancing in a movie means dancing in front of cameras, which is different than dancing for an audience on stage. Kampa found the idea of dancing in a movie both exciting and intimidating. “The hardest days for me were the days we did ballet because I was so insecure as to where the cameras were. I am use to performing to an audience, and not having people watch from behind or thinking of camera angles. So learning to trust Janeen and Michael and the camera men to make good decisions with the footage was really tough. I felt really vulnerable during those times. Once we got past those days, it was okay. It was tough because ballet is so personal and to entrust someone else with that was hard,” says Kampa.
The movie, “High Strung,” features dance segments that merge ballet with hip hop, two very different dance forms, and it can be challenging to mix the two styles. Kampa describes what it was like dancing these ballet hip hop fusion numbers and working with choreographer Dave Scott, “In the beginning, yes, it felt quite foreign; mainly because I had on pointe shoes. I wanted so badly to slip on Nikes! But, it was fun working with Dave Scott because he has a respect for ballet and let me have a voice throughout the entire process. Our lines in classical ballet are so specific and ingrained in our bodies. It just took some time to let go of that and loosen up.”
Kampa enjoyed making the movie, “High Strung,” as both a dancer and an actress. When asked about her favorite thing about filming “High Strung,” Kampa comments, “This is a difficult question because there were so many different aspects of working on this film that made it both memorable and enjoyable. First, the atmosphere and the company of various cast members made it a blast. There was never a dull moment, and no one took themselves too seriously to make it tense or stressful. Since this was my first film, the entire process was an amazing learning experience. I honestly just enjoyed every moment and soaked up as much as I could. There was never a time that I didn’t want to be on set!”
Life as a Freelance Artist
The future is bright for actress and dancer Keenan Kampa. After completing “High Strung,” she has been working as a freelance artist, and pursuing both acting and dance opportunities. She talks about life as a freelance artist, “I’ve been keeping up with ballet as a freelance artist and hopefully going back into it more now that my hip is finally fully recovered. I’ve been teaching master classes and tutoring. It actually helps you as a dancer as you watch these kids learn new things and react to correction. It gives you new perspective. When you are a professional, you can get jaded, and you sometimes forget why you started it. But when you see these young students with their excitement and their passion, you remember why you started dancing. It’s kind of beautiful.”
Working as a freelance artist is different than life in a ballet company. “It’s tough being a freelance artist. It’s totally different than being in a company, because you take on these small projects as they come along. Right now the focus has been a lot on acting. You have to keep up with this discipline of getting to class, working out, stretching, eating and with everything,” says Kampa.
Kampa is open to both acting and dance opportunities in the future. “I am keeping up with both my ballet and acting. I have some small projects coming up. It will be exciting to see what the future holds.”
“High Strung” is playing in movie theaters now. Check local theater schedules for movie times. West Michigan dance fans will enjoy seeing Keenan Kampa, who made such a great impression on the local dance community, star in a movie that celebrates the art of dance. For more information, visit High Strung’s Facebook page.
Originally published on Examiner.com on April 12, 2016